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Laura Jones makes still life come alive
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Laura Jones makes still life come alive
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Laura Jones makes still life come alive
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Conversations
30 January 2015

Laura Jones makes still life come alive

Interview by Dennis YC Liu
Photography by Rachel Kara

Meeting Laura...

When I sat down for a Skype chat with Laura Jones, our feature artist for issue 42, the first thing that struck me was her generosity. Within moments of saying hello, Laura had whipped up her laptop from her desk and was giving me an enthusiastic tour of her studio space.

This willingness to share is infectious and very much evident in her art too. Whether it’s white windflowers in ochre jars or irises with a backdrop of night-sky wallpaper, Laura’s work overflows with shades of playful, vulnerable, dark and calm, often all within the same piece.

As we talk, it occurs to me that in many ways ‘still-life’ is an oxymoron when applied to Laura’s work. While painting flowers is a tradition almost as long as art history itself, Laura’s approach is anything but nostalgic. Everything about her energy and engagement, both with her work and her community, is about seizing the present.

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DENNIS Y.C. LIU: So I wanted to ask you, what is it about flowers that captures your imagination?

LAURA JONES: When I started painting I was working as a florist and to paint flowers seemed too obvious, but when I did paint them it just made so much sense to me.

I’ve always thought it’s very important to appreciate the natural beauty around us and the simple things in life. I think it’s in my nature to emphasise positive things through my art practice rather than paint about what worries me and upsets me about the world.

Flowers are a very elegant symbol for human emotion and human life. Everybody uses them at different stages in their life. When you work as a florist, people come in wanting flowers for weddings, funerals, simple celebrations, births. Flowers are present at all the occasions that mark our existence.

So on a personal level they’re very important to me, but within art practice and history in general they’re very symbolic as well and have been used in painting for centuries. They’re an endlessly relevant subject matter I think.

Is it something to do with the fragility of flowers and the fleeting nature of things?

Absolutely. They have a really short lifespan and I try to directly respond to that in my practice, because I paint only from life. I bring actual flowers into the studio and I respond to them as they change and wilt and paint them as they are in front of me.

To me that’s part of the whole experience of painting. Some people do it differently, but I quite enjoy that high turnover of subject matter in my space. It makes the space itself feel alive. In a way, if you can see change happening in front of you it helps you connect to time. I think artists in particular are a bit obsessed with time and how it changes and how we all move through it.

So painting flowers is a way of connecting me to the environment, to something real.

And how long does it take for you to complete a painting?

Once the flowers are in my studio they last about three to four days, and I try to complete the painting over the lifespan of the flowers. I usually do a really quick under-painting on the first day and then gradually build it up the next two days.

But it’s interesting how a space changes the way you paint as well, and also what time of year it is and what’s happening in your life.

Paintings just say so much about you that you can’t even help but show. It’s very bright and quite hot right now, so I’m painting very quickly. There’s also less shadow because of the time of year. Your paintings are like a diary or a mirror of the inside of your brain.

It’s very hard to resist that. In a way they’re very honest.

Wow, so is painting perhaps your way of keeping a diary?

I feel like if you really looked at my work there’s definitely elements that could be autobiographical, but I’m certainly not making paintings about me. I think it’s important to make something that’s universal and relate my experiences to something that everyone can respond to.

Something that I’ve been thinking about is how painting is a singular activity that requires focus on one thing for an extended period of time. What are your thoughts on what it means to paint in the age of social media and smartphones?

I think it’s interesting. I was sitting around with my studio mates the other day and we were flicking through a book of still life paintings from the Netherlands from the 1700s, and you know, they’re so beautifully and carefully painted. People had a lot of time back then.

In a way, we kind of throw paint around now. We can’t even help it, but it reflects just how much more we have to squeeze into our lives and how our focus can be so disrupted by everything. But in a way that’s a really beautiful thing as well because painting is very honest, so the space that we create work in, the time that we live in, who we are and how we’ve grown up, the people around us, the country we happen to be born in, it all comes through. The paint doesn’t lie.

So in that sense I think it’s really important to keep painting. It’s more relevant than ever because it tells all those stories without you even having to try. I don’t have to make a painting about Facebook in order to be of this time. I am of this time. And like everybody else, I get distracted, and so my paintings are made within that context.

And how about Instagram? It’s a platform that seems so integral to how art is shared and experienced these days.

You know, Instagram is very different. For me, Instagram’s a tool, and I use it as a studio diary. It’s interesting to know that people are part of the process. With Instagram, I’m aware of people, even though it’s a solitary thing and I’m in my studio. I feel very much connected to the people that look at my work.

And has the internet age affected the way you engage with other people’s art?

It’s really hard to define how exactly I’m affected by it, but I feel like I can see what other people are doing and it makes me feel like part of a collective. Images are so easy to access because of the internet so it feels like I’m part of a greater voice, and that’s a really exciting thing.

In that sense, I think we’re kind of over the ‘Painting is dead’ argument. It’s really reinvigorated, and the internet has played no small part in that.

The thing about social media is it’s helped me connect with people outside of the traditional art world. My connection with The Design Files began there and they were really supportive of my work early on. I think there’s also definitely a change to presenting art and artists in more vibrant and accessible ways. It’s a really great offshoot of this evolution of technology. I really like it. I think it’s a good thing.

And what are some things you do as part of your process that help you stay curious?

I find that I can’t help but change the way that I’m doing things all the time. Like there might be a painting that I did ages ago that I liked and wish that I could do that again, but I can’t seem to do that.

So I make an effort to approach things a bit differently and I say to myself, ‘Oh maybe I’ve never done a painting of a tabletop in this way before.’ Sometimes I try to make up small challenges within paintings for myself, maybe make a series of big paintings, or small paintings or do this or that better. I change the parameters a bit to keep it interesting.

For example, at the moment I’m experimenting a lot with flattening out space and obstructing the fabric and flowers. So my work’s looking a bit more flat and colourful, less about light and more about pattern and texture.

But then I might move away from that again. It might just be a little clue in a painting that you like, that looks like a new direction and so you might pick up on that and follow it and put that in the next painting. That’s kind of how it evolves for me. You get excited by something and go, ‘Oh, how did that happen? I’ll put that into the next painting and see if it can grow from there.’

So what advice would you give artists on how they can keep creating work that’s meaningful to them?

It’s really important to try and close off the outside world and focus in the studio and switch things off and actually make a painting. And then you can bring it back and put it out into the world. I find I do have to maintain that solitary headspace. I just have to be painting and nothing else. I just listen to music and try and just get into the zone.

And in terms of painting itself, I think it’s really important to do the work. Spend the hours in the studio painting and experimenting and making mistakes. You really have to spend the time. Wasting materials if you have to… or just not viewing it as a waste.

You also have to do the best to make space for it in your life. I spent lots of years working part-time, and it’s really hard to keep a studio practice going when you’re struggling to pay your studio rent. So you just have to push that bit harder, have the energy to work extra hours and just have faith that your work will improve the more you do it.

Painting’s kind of like learning a language. The more you do it the bigger your vocabulary gets and the more fluent you become. You must have faith that you will get better. I think the best advice I can give is to just keep going.

Dennis YC Liu

Dennis YC Liu is a filmmaker and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.

Photography by Rachel Kara

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